Writers such as Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen speak of having to tune out the internet in order to write. But is that just tuning out real life?
This will be the year, I say every year. The year when the fever breaks, the addiction weakens, when my attention span and focus becomes a vast, smooth body of water without rips or currents pulling me back and forth, dragging me under, taking me out.
A year not without the internet but having the internet under control. It might look like this: check email three times a day, visit Twitter five times, check Facebook once instead of what it is now: a constant binge, 20 tabs open on the browser, and multiple conversations occurring simultaneously on half a dozen different platforms, from Facebook messenger to Google chat.
It seems like each year its getting harder and harder to switch off. The devices are getting faster, lighter and better, and we are drawing ever closer to them. Social media and our interactions on it seem no longer ancillary to our regular lives but overlaid, cheek to cheek, the skin across our bones.
The phrase digital detox seems quaint, like something from another era (2013? 2014?). Its 2016 and we are past the point of no return.
But what is that point? Is it when you suspect your online life is richer, deeper, more intense, fast and funny than anything you could hope for IRL? When you think leaving the digital world would kill the best part of yourself? But why would you kill the thing you love?
Increasingly, people feel like their real selves online, and its out in the world that they feel false or slow or derivative. The wit on Twitter (they actually are a raconteur like it says in their profile), the hot talking Tinder dude, the Instagrammer who wants to share every sunset out there in the real world eye to eye across a table, or in some bar the words dry up in their throat and there is that passing, melancholy thought: Things were so much better online.
Im surely not the only one left slightly reeling after an online conversation has escalated to something … unexpected … gotten so deep so quickly right down to the bones that Ive found myself sharing things Id never say in real life.
Its not just the personal and profound but the dull details of life that bounce back and forth in endless messages: what did you have for lunch, what are you reading, have you seen this clip?
But this overlay and the constant disruption that occurs can be the enemy of creating anything of depth and substance, whether it is writing a novel or making a garden. Hence my fierce desire in 2016 to break away.
In the Woman of the Hour podcast, Zadie Smith recently detailed how she had to curb her internet use if she wanted to write books. She almost always has an away message on her email and uses an old fashioned flip phone that doesnt have an internet connection.
Its the action of an addict, Smith told podcast host Lena Dunham. Ill go down a Beyoncé Google hole for 4 hours anything but write. First I got the flip phone, it has nothing on it, it barely texts (then) I found something online which takes social media off your computer.
She also uses internet blocking software Self Control, Freedom and Brown Noise to block out sound.
When I started writing, the internet barely existed (Smith is 40) but I have a feeling that younger people dont have these addictive issues because they grew up with it. For us one minute it wasnt there and then it was.
Other novelists, including Jonathan Franzen, talk about the internet as if it is the enemy of creating good art. He wrote in the Guardian:
When Im working, I need to isolate myself at the office, because Im easily distracted and modern life has become extremely distracting. Distraction pours through every portal, especially through the internet. And most of what pours through is meaningless noise. To be able to hear whats really happening in the world, you have to block out 99% of the noise.
Is the solution to scrub the internet out of your home and out of your life to install the software, tape up the plugs, disable the modem, disconnect the wifi, pretend it doesnt exist, reinstate your attention span to pre-internet level? To make it like 1980 when you write your book, and all you have is the home phone, which is off the hook?
Maybe not, because the worlds created with these perfect attention spans cant therefore be a slice of modern life, because this life is now so different from the circumstances under which the work was created.
A recent article in Fader contrasted the songs of Adele and Drake.
Adele is writing songs as if the internet didnt exist, while Drake acknowledges the overlay between our real life and virtual life. (Frank Ocean, novelist Tao Lin and Kanye are others who are good depicting our hyper-connected age.)
According to Aimee Cliff in Fader:
The contrast is uncanny. Not only is Adele a chart challenge to Drake, but shes also his polar opposite and no two songs could illustrate this better than Hello and Hotline Bling. Although both songs seem to be fundamentally dealing with the decades-old, familiar pop subject matter of missed connections, Drakes takes place in our current world, in which you cant escape updates and rumors about your ex even as you travel the world. Meanwhile, Adele sets her scene in a pre-social media universe: one in which shes been calling the person shes trying to reach on their landline for years (when I call you never seem to be home) and doesnt even know if they live in the same place or not.
This is not to say that Drakes music is better than Adeles, but when it comes to making sense of the world we need people who can tell it how it really is, not how it once was.
One can imagine Franzen returning to the world from his writing cocoon and feeling as if hes woken up in a different century.
Early 20th century novelist EM Forster had one perfect plea: only connect. Now all we do is connect. Were blitzing on connections, were mainlining connections, were connecting when we should be asleep, should be alone, should be talking to the people in front of us (IRL).
The future as JG Ballard imagined it is now. We fetishise our machines and devices the way that Vaughan did with vehicles in Crash. But instead of dehumanising us, it has the potential to have the opposite effect. All those Twitter jokes, all those Facebook friends, all those people who would have slipped through the cracks and time, the net is there to catch them.
There are riches here that our Victorian descendants out all day in the paddocks, acres of silence, church and calling on people on Sunday could have never imagined.
We just have to work out a way to write books and make art with this disruption we have to be able to fold it into our work to create new kinds of work. Maybe thats the resolution for 2016.